Chapter 23:


ALLEZ CUISINE! Gourmet Battle Girls

It felt like time had stopped as Frosted Tips Boy quietly walked over to me, bending down to look into my eyes.Bookmark here

“You remember me, don’t you? Of course you do…you’re the little bitch that got me expelled.”Bookmark here

I could feel sweat coursing down my body. My mind was screaming as I struggled futilely. Why is this happening…No no no no no…Bookmark here

“Why don’t you be a good little girl…and accept your punishment?”Bookmark here

Suddenly, the person holding me pushed me forward. Frosted Tips Boy’s knee caught me in the stomach, driving the air out of me again, before I could scream.Bookmark here

Something long and thin hit me repeatedly across the back of both my legs as I tried to crawl away. I didn’t feel anything break, but it hurt like hell. Another one of the boys stomped on my outstretched hand, and I shrieked as I felt something break the skin—he was probably wearing sports cleats. I pulled my arms up over my head to protect it as I was being kicked and battered from what seemed like every direction at once.Bookmark here

Every cell in my body was telling me to flee. I tried to get to my feet, but felt my ankle being grabbed from behind. I bucked and kicked, trying to break free from the grasp, and finally felt them let go. Fueled by pure fear, I dashed away as fast as I could. “HELP ME! SOMEONE HELP!” I screamed.Bookmark here

Just then, as I reached a worn down gravel path, I saw someone approaching—wait, could it be? Was that…Bookmark here

“SEMPAI!” I shrieked as Taiga Shirogane came into the light. He turned to me, looking surprised, and caught me as I ran headlong into him. His arms enfolded me gently.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-san, what happened?” he asked.Bookmark here

“We…We gotta run…” I gasped. I looked behind him to see Frosted Tips Boy and the two other attackers barreling towards us, one of them brandishing what looked like a bamboo sword. “SEMPAI! RUN!”Bookmark here

Taiga didn’t say or do anything as I watched them come closer. “Sempai…?” I whispered, but then he bent down and looked into my eyes, smiling. But it wasn’t his usual smile.Bookmark here

“Why don’t you be a good little girl…and accept your punishment?” he snarled.Bookmark here

He pushed me backwards. I was caught in the arms of Frosted Tips Boy, who grabbed my arms and twisted them behind me painfully. I shrieked in pain and alarm. Bookmark here

“Oh, Vanilla-chan. Scream all you want. You know about the bystander effect, do you?” Taiga asked. “Where everyone assumes that someone else is going to call the police. Unfortunately…there’s no someone else here. It’s just the five of us.”Bookmark here

He stepped closer to me as I struggled. That warm smile that had encouraged me was replaced by one that was sinister and as cold as absolute zero. “You know, Vanilla-chan…your father wasn’t the only one who died that day in the Himalayas,” he said, in that gentle voice that was dripping with poison instead of sugar. “I have a question…does the name ‘Hibiki’ mean anything to you?”Bookmark here

I was too scared to form words; the only sounds I could make were frightened gasps. My eyes darted around looking for an opening, anywhere I could escape to. I couldn’t even see the light from the police box that was nearby. The drivers of the cars that were going by on the overpass wouldn’t even think to look down. All I could think was, it was a trap it was a trap it was a trap…Bookmark here

“Answer me, Sakamoto,” Taiga ordered.Bookmark here

“I…I don’t know…” I stammered.Bookmark here

“What about the name…Hibiki Shirogane?”Bookmark here

Suddenly, I remembered something: a story about a gourmet battler who had been given a five year ban from the league after a scandal involving judges with close personal connections to the combatants. Rumors had swirled around about how she had been made a scapegoat for the real culprits…and they had mentioned her for the briefest moment during the time Taiga had been competing.Bookmark here

“The cheating scandal…” I stammered.Bookmark here

Taiga’s expression changed. “She was my mother,” he said. “And being branded a cheater is all everyone will ever remember her by. Not because of her comeback. Not because she was handpicked by your father for this expedition. When that plane went down, no one cared about her. No one cared about her sons or her husband. All everyone cared about…was your father and the little girl he left behind.” He glared at me, his face inches from mine. “We got no condolences from celebrities. No donations. No public memorial services. It was all about him. And in turn…it was all about you.”Bookmark here

He slapped me painfully across the face. “Seeing an arrogant little bitch like you broken and humiliated was something I’ve wanted for a very long time. And winning the tournament will just be icing on the cake.”Bookmark here

I recovered from the blow enough to gasp, “Did you…hurt Tsukiko-sempai…and Yomogi-chan?”Bookmark here

“What do you think?” Shirogane smiled, and his look said everything.Bookmark here

I was boiling with rage. “You…You slimy little shit eating bastard!” I snarled, but one of Frosted Tips Boy’s friends hit me across my legs again with the bamboo sword. I shrieked in pain.Bookmark here

“That’s such a horrible thing for a pretty little mouth to say,” Taiga said, leaning close to me. Before I could protest, he pulled my face close to his and kissed me on the lips, forcing his tongue into my mouth. There was nothing I could do to stop him and struggling only made things worse. After what seemed like an eternity, he broke the kiss, and smiled as he caressed my cheek.Bookmark here

“You’ve been dreaming of that, haven’t you?” he said, chuckling. “Now then, Vanilla-chan…we’re just going to keep this little conversation between us. If you say anything to anyone…there’s someone that we’ll be paying a little visit.” He got close to me again and whispered two words into my ear that made my blood run cold.Bookmark here

“Caroline Koizumi.Bookmark here

“NO!” I shrieked. “She’s got nothing to do with this! Leave her alone!”Bookmark here

“Oh, don’t worry. I will. As long as you know how to keep a secret.” Shirogane stepped back. “Let her go, Tanaka,” he ordered.Bookmark here

I was thrown from Frosted Tips Boy’s arms onto the concrete path, landing hard. “Did you and your friends have fun playing with her?” Shirogane asked.Bookmark here

I heard a snort from Frosted Tips Boy. “Wasn’t what I wanted, but I’ll take it.”Bookmark here

“Then let’s get out of here. I’ll have the money for you at the bank.”Bookmark here

“Right.” The boys walked past me, following Shirogane out of the park. I heard them laughing and joking with each other about what they had originally planned for me as they walked away. If you were around to hear it, it was enough to turn your stomach.Bookmark here

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I waited until their voices faded into the distance before I stumbled to my feet. I had puncture wounds on the back of my hand and fresh bruises on both my arms, and walking was difficult—the blows on my legs were still smarting, and they were going to leave serious marks. I licked my bottom lip and tasted caked dried blood, and remembered the forced kiss. A wave of nausea overcame my stomach and I stumbled into the bushes to throw up.Bookmark here

What time was it? It felt like hours since I’d been tackled. I reached into my pocket to check the time on my phone, but came up empty. I patted around my clothing, searching desperately. It was gone!Bookmark here

It could have fallen out of my pocket anywhere around here. I looked around trying to retrace my steps, but I could barely remember what had happened in my panic induced flight. Chances are it was pretty much gone…or they took it. I was thinking that it was probably the latter.Bookmark here

As the shock started to wear off, my legs started to hurt. I stumbled out of the park and back onto the main street. I must’ve looked like hell. I glanced left and right, hoping I wouldn’t stumble on my attackers again, as I looked for the police box I had spotted on my way to the park.Bookmark here

Finally, I saw its familiar blue light and stumbled towards it. An officer was sitting inside, and he sprang to their feet as he saw me. “Young lady! Are you all right?” he said.Bookmark here

The warning from Shirogane was still fresh in my mind as I stammered a response. “I got mugged for my phone,” I said.Bookmark here

“Sit down. I’ll take the report,” the officer said. “Do you need a doctor?”Bookmark here

I nodded.Bookmark here

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I spent the better part of an hour giving the police officer the report on what happened. Everything, except for Shirogane’s threat. If he had the resources to lay that kind of trap on me and hurt Tsukiko and Yomogi, who knows what else he could be capable of doing. When they asked me if I knew the identities of my attackers, I shook my head no. Another officer was tending to my cut lip and wounded hand, dabbing them carefully with gauze soaked in antiseptic.Bookmark here

“I don’t think you’ll need stitches, but you might need an x-ray just in case,” she said, as she carefully laid a bandage on the back of my hand. “And a tetanus booster.”Bookmark here

I nodded and flexed my hand, wincing in pain. One of the spikes for the cleats must’ve gone through a muscle.Bookmark here

The phone on the desk rang, and the officer collecting my report sprang up. “Hold on,” he said. He ran to the other room and picked it up. “Haneda, Tanpopo Park…Oh?” He glanced back at me for a second, then returned to his conversation. “Yes, exactly as you described her…Tell them she’s going to need medical attention…Yes. All right.” He hung up the phone.Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san, your friends are coming,” he said. “They were out looking for you.”Bookmark here

“They…they are?” I stammered.Bookmark here

“My colleague called asking if I’d seen someone matching your description.” He sat back down and looked over his laptop where he had been typing up the report. “Do you have anything else you need to report about the incident, Sakamoto-san?”Bookmark here

I shook my head. “No…nothing else.” There was nothing else I could say. Not with Caroline’s safety hanging in the balance.Bookmark here

A few minutes later, I heard a knock at the door and looked outside to see Mako standing outside—with Kei behind her. “Mako-san! Kei-chan!” I called.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan! Are you all right?” Mako rushed in, looking extremely pale. Kei followed, holding a small bag from a nearby convenience store.Bookmark here

“I don’t know yet,” I said, as I carefully eased myself upright. “I need to get checked out…”Bookmark here

Kei walked over and stooped down, looping her arm around my shoulders to help support me. “There’s a 24 hour emergency room near here,” she said. “Do you think you can make it?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know,” I said.Bookmark here

Mako was looking relieved as she thanked the two police officers. “Come on,” she said as she started for the door. “We’ll talk on the way.”Bookmark here

“Be safe,” the police officer said as we exited the station. The streets were still quiet, and the insects were still buzzing. Kei slowly helped me along as we walked back towards the main street.Bookmark here

“I was looking for you earlier,” Mako said, “because I needed to show you something, but you weren’t around. Then I tried messaging you, and you weren’t responding. So I called Kei-chan, and she hadn’t seen you, either…”Bookmark here

“And that’s when I got a message from your phone,” Kei said. “And I knew it hadn’t been sent from you. I came down as fast as I could.”Bookmark here

“Must’ve been…” I started to say, but then I went silent. “I’ll…I’ll tell you later. Not here. Not…”Bookmark here

“Right,” Mako said. “I understand. Oh, is this the hospital you were talking about, Kei-chan?”Bookmark here

“Wait, this is…” It was the same building that I had visited Yomogi in, scarcely a few hours earlier. I didn’t want to say anything. It’d break Yomogi’s heart if she heard about what happened.Bookmark here

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We went inside to the deserted waiting room and Kei walked me up to the front desk to get registered. I gave the receptionist a condensed version of what happened and told her I wanted an x-ray on my hands and legs, to make sure that there wasn’t any lasting damage. I hobbled back to join Mako and Kei on a bench. Kei reached into a bag and pulled out a wrapped melon bread.Bookmark here

“Are you hungry?” she asked.Bookmark here

“I…don’t really feel much like eating,” I said, patting my stomach. My throat still felt raw from vomiting.Bookmark here

Kei looked around and pulled out her phone, and touched the icon for text messaging. “This was what I got…” she said as she showed it to me. It was a picture of me, taken by one of the boys who had attacked me. I was lying sprawled on the ground. There were huge angry red lashes on the back of my legs, my clothing was dirty, and my hair was disheveled.Bookmark here

“Who the hell did this to you?” Mako growled. She looked like she was about to rip someone’s head off.Bookmark here

I just looked down at it. I wanted to tell them everything, but I could feel the specter of Shirogane lurking in the background. My eyes were beginning to tear up, and as my vision became blurry, I thought I momentarily saw Caroline in the picture…Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, we don’t have to talk here. We can go back first,” Mako said.Bookmark here

I was about to speak, but then a nurse came in. “Sakamoto-san?” she asked. “Please follow me.”Bookmark here

“Do you want one of us to come with you?” Kei asked, but I shook my head. “All right. We’ll be waiting for you.”Bookmark here

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The good news: Nothing was broken and I didn’t need stitches, but my legs and arms were going to look terrible for the next few weeks.Bookmark here

The bad news: I did need a tetanus booster after all, ouch.Bookmark here

I returned to Kei and Mako in the waiting room, clutching the bag of painkillers and antibiotic ointment the doctor had prescribed to me, and with a fresh bandage on my injured hand. I looked up and noticed the clock for the first time in a while, and noticed it was past midnight.Bookmark here

“Kei-chan, are you going to be all right if you’re out this late?” I asked.Bookmark here

“It’s fine,” Kei said. “I told my family what was happening before I left.”Bookmark here

We stopped to buy a bottle of water from a vending machine, so I could take some of the painkillers. I leaned up against the back of a wall as I swallowed the pills.Bookmark here

“Does walking hurt?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“A little,” I said. “If we go slow, it should be fine.”Bookmark here

Kei shook her head and turned around, so her back was facing me. She crouched down.Bookmark here

“Get on,” she said.Bookmark here

“Wait, what? Are you sure?”Bookmark here

“Trust me. You need your rest,” Kei said. “Get on my back.”Bookmark here

I did so, with Kei carefully wrapping my legs around her arms. “Are you going to be all right?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I should be the one asking you that question,” Kei said.Bookmark here

Mako checked her phone. “I let Dai-kun know we’re on our way back,” she said. “Come on.”Bookmark here

I clutched Kei tightly as we slowly made our way to the train station.Bookmark here

We arrived back at the Saibara Building. I carefully lowered myself down from Kei’s back as Mako took out the keys for her apartment.Bookmark here

“You’re back,” said a voice from inside—it was her boyfriend, Daisuke Honda the motorcycle fan. As we passed through, he saw my face and winced. “What happened?” he asked.Bookmark here

“Long story,” I said.Bookmark here

“Dai-kun, how is she?” Mako asked.Bookmark here

“She fell asleep, finally. All that playing wore her out.”Bookmark here

We stepped into the apartment to find that a cardboard box was sitting on the table. “This is what I wanted to show you,” Mako said, as we came closer. We looked inside the box to see that it was lined with a ragged towel, and a tiny black kitten with white spots was stretched out inside, asleep.Bookmark here

“It’s so cute!” I squealed softly. “Where did you find it?”Bookmark here

“I was on my way here and I saw her at the side of the road,” Daisuke said. “I couldn’t find her mom or anyone else so I just scooped her up and tucked her in my jacket.”Bookmark here

“It’s a girl?” I asked. Carefully I reached into the box and lightly stroked the top of the kitten’s head.Bookmark here

“Yeah. We were gonna take her to the vet, and then…” Daisuke glanced at Mako. I guessed that was when my situation became the priority. “I’m going to be headed out, now that you’re back,” Daisuke said to Mako. “Let me know what the vet says.”Bookmark here

“I will. Thanks for bringing her, Dai-kun,” Mako said, as she gave Daisuke a hug and kiss.Bookmark here

Daisuke turned around and walked out, waving. He shut the door behind him, leaving the three of us and the kitten. I peered into the box and watched her sleeping, her round belly rising and falling. Her tail was completely black, her paws looked like they were dipped in white paint, and there was a white spot on her chest. I wondered what color her eyes were.Bookmark here

“What are you going to do with her?” I asked Mako.Bookmark here

“Tomorrow I’m going to take her to the vet to see if she’s healthy, and then…” She shrugged. “I have to admit, I miss Ebifry a lot.”Bookmark here

“She looks pretty young,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“I managed to get her to eat some leftover wet food I had for Ebifry but I’ll need to track down some food just for kittens,” Mako said. She went over to the hot water dispenser in her kitchen and took down three cups. “Sit down, both of you. I’ll make us some tea. Do you want tea, Vanilla-chan?”
“Um…yeah…” I was feeling dazed as the shock of the evening’s events had left me.Bookmark here

Kei followed me over to the table and sat down next to me. “It’s just the three of us now,” Kei said. “You…you don’t have to tell us everything that happened if it’s too painful, but…”Bookmark here

I nodded and took a deep breath. “It…it was a trap,” I said.Bookmark here

“A trap?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“I tried sending a message to someone my father was friends with using the NPBGA website…but someone must’ve intercepted it.”Bookmark here

“What did you say in the message?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“That…that something bad was happening in the competition,” I said. “I told them about what happened to Tsukiko-sempai and Yomogi-chan and me…” My hands were shaking. “They wrote back pretending to be the person I messaged and said to meet them at Tanpopo Park…” I swallowed. “There were four guys…they chased me down and started beating me up, and then…” My hands were shaking almost uncontrollably, and Kei gently grasped them. “He…they said…they said that…if I told anyone what I knew…that they’d go after Caroline-chan.”Bookmark here

“Caroline-chan?” Mako asked.Bookmark here

“Ryotaro Koizumi’s daughter,” Kei explained. “Vanilla-chan, the people that attacked you…did you know them?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

I hesitated, but then nodded.Bookmark here

“Do we know them?” Kei asked. Bookmark here

“I…” I wanted to tell them everything, but my fear was too great. I looked down at my lap. Kei must’ve gotten my hint, as she got up. “Mako-san, do you have that spare futon?” she asked. “I just realized how late it is.”Bookmark here

“Sure,” Mako said. She went over to a wall closet and opened it up.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, if it’s okay…I’ll stay with you tonight,” Kei said.Bookmark here

I nodded.Bookmark here

Thankfully, my house keys were still on me, so I let Kei in, who laid Mako’s spare futon out on the kitchen floor. Bookmark here

“It’s been so long since I was here,” Kei said. “We’ve got to do another dinner party sometime…” Her voice trailed off. “When Yomogi-chan is better.”Bookmark here

“When I talked to her today, she said that she might not be coming back,” I said, as I went into the bathroom. I put more toothpaste on my toothbrush than was absolutely necessary and started scrubbing at my teeth, trying to scrub out the memory of Shirogane’s forced kiss.Bookmark here

“I hope she does,” Kei said. “She was…she is so happy here.” She looked at my room. “Do you have a spare t-shirt or pajamas I can borrow?” she asked.Bookmark here

I finished washing up and tossed her a long sleep t-shirt that I had recently washed, then shuffled into my sleeping area and pulled back the covers of my futon.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry, Kei-chan,” I said, as I laid my head down on the pillow.Bookmark here

“What are you sorry for?” Kei asked.Bookmark here

“I…I should’ve told you about this meeting…”Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan. Please…try not to dwell on it,” Kei said.Bookmark here

“I wish I was as strong as you are. Maybe I could’ve escaped.”Bookmark here

“I don’t think even I could have escaped four against one,” Kei said. “You needed to do what you could in order to survive. That’s what counts.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I murmured. My thoughts drifted and I pulled my knees up to my chest.Bookmark here

“Do you need anything? I’m going to turn the light off.”Bookmark here

“No…” I tried closing my eyes, but horrible thoughts still clamored inside my head.Bookmark here

“I’ll be right here. You’re safe.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…safe…” I murmured.Bookmark here

The light clicked off, and I heard the rustling of sheets as Kei crawled into her futon. The room grew quiet, and all I could hear was my clock ticking. I tried my best to think of pleasant thoughts and banish the night’s events from my mind, and remembered the kitten sleeping in Mako’s apartment. But then the thought of something happening to Caroline intruded its way back to the front of my mind, until I decided to defeat it with another thought of my own: I need to warn Ryotaro. Bookmark here

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I woke up feeling terrible. I looked down at my arms and legs to see that the angry red marks were replaced by ugly bruises, and there was an ugly bruise covering the back of my hand underneath the bandage. Everything still ached horribly.Bookmark here

I looked up to see Kei in the kitchen. She had shifted the futon to one side, and was doing a series of exercises, steadily breathing in and out, her face a mask of pure concentration. If only I had your strength, I thought, flexing my right hand and wincing as the puncture wound throbbed in pain.Bookmark here

I looked over at the table to see that the alarm clock was reading a time later than when I’d usually wake up for school. As I did so, Kei noticed me, and went into a neutral stance.Bookmark here

“I turned your alarm off, so you could get a little more sleep,” she said. “I doubt you want to go to school today, anyway.”Bookmark here

“What about you?” I asked.Bookmark here

“I kinda have to,” Kei said. She crouched down next to me at the table. “Big test in one of my classes. And I want to go see Yomogi-chan today.”Bookmark here

My conversation with Maria the previous afternoon sprang to mind. “Kei-chan, do me a favor and contact Maria-san,” I said. “We were talking yesterday after I went to see Yomogi-chan, and she gave me an idea. The only trouble is, I told her I’d meet her at lunch…”Bookmark here

Kei nodded. “I’ll go in your stead,” she said. “So what’s this idea?”Bookmark here

I explained the park underneath her hospital window, and Kei’s face lit up. “That’s perfect! And we can try to get a few signs made, too!”Bookmark here

I smiled. “Let me know when it happens. I’ll do my best to make it out there,” I said. “There’s something I need to do today.”Bookmark here

“Wait, what? But you need to rest!” Kei protested, but my resolve was firm.Bookmark here

“I’ve got to warn Ryotaro-san about Caroline.”Bookmark here

Kei nodded. “All right. But rest up a little more first.”Bookmark here

“I will,” I said.Bookmark here

She gathered up the futon and left my apartment, carefully closing the door behind her. I settled back down in my futon and decided to get a little more rest.Bookmark here

I woke up about an hour later, with the sun beaming down on my face. I opened up my computer and searched through one of my storage bins for my old phone—the one my mom had paid to fix after she knocked it out of my hands in anger. It was two years out of date, but it would have to do. I connected it to my computer and proceeded to do the information transfer from backup, which would take a while, so I decided to visit Mako and see if the little kitten was awake.Bookmark here

Sure enough, I went to her door to see Mako holding the kitten in her arms. The kitten buried its head against Mako’s chest as I approached. “Hey, now, Kurozato-chan! She’s a friend!” Mako said as she let me in and closed the door behind her.Bookmark here

“Kurozato [black sugar]?” I asked.Bookmark here

“Kuro,” Mako said, pointing to the kitten’s head. “Zato!” she continued, holding up one of her paws. Kurozato made a squeaky mew.Bookmark here

Mako sat down on the floor and carefully placed Kurozato beside her. Carefully, I sat down, making sure I wasn’t hitting any sore spots. I reached out my hand and she approached, sniffing my fingers. She had beautiful yellow eyes. I stroked her cheek and she seemed to like that, so I started rubbing her under the chin and on top of her head. She scrunched up her eyes and started to purr.Bookmark here

“She seems a lot better than last night,” Mako said. “What about you?”Bookmark here

“I got a little more sleep,” I said. “I’m waiting for my old phone to restore from backup and then I need to go out.”Bookmark here

“Go out? Where? After last night?” Mako was surprised.Bookmark here

“I have to warn Ryotaro-san,” I said.Bookmark here

“Can’t you call him or something? You’re in no condition—”Bookmark here

“I spent most of last night having nightmares about this happening to Caroline-chan!” I snapped. “You weren’t there…You didn’t hear them talking about…about…” My face started trembling. Kurozato had cowered behind Mako, looking concerned.Bookmark here

“All right…but call me if you need help getting back,” Mako said. She reached behind her and gently picked Kurozato up, stroking her head gently.Bookmark here

The TV was on behind her, and it was tuned to a morning news program. As Kurozato started to curl up in Mako’s lap, I watched as the newscasters posted a picture of an older gentleman on the screen. “Earlier this week, we reported on the hospitalization of a contestant in Umami Gakuen’s Summer Invitational,” said the newscaster. “This was the result of online bullies exposing an incident in their past, when they witnessed an assault on an elderly shopkeeper. Today, Eichi Kumagai, the man injured in the incident, made a statement to local media.” The video cut to a man standing at a podium at what looked like a town hall. He looked very strong for his age, and I could see a very faint scar on his forehead.Bookmark here

“I do not blame this child,” he said. “They were the only one that tried to help me. They deserve to let their dreams come true. If there is one to blame…then blame the one that hurt me. Back off from this innocent child! Remember, she is a human being, like you and me.”Bookmark here

The video then cut back to the newscaster. “Because of the coordination and the timing of these attacks, they are under investigation by the police.”Bookmark here

“I hope that at least makes them back off,” Mako said.Bookmark here

“That’s the second time I’ve heard that the police are involved,” I said. “What’s really going on…” Bookmark here

“Something big’s happening,” Mako said. “I don’t need any more convincing about it…”Bookmark here

Carefully I picked myself up, leaning against the wall for support. “I’m going to head out. I’ll talk to you later.”Bookmark here

“Remember. Call me if you need help,” Mako said.Bookmark here

“Right. I’ll be careful. I promise,” I said.Bookmark here

My phone was ready, but I wasn’t. I pulled a pair of black socks from my previous school’s uniform over my bruised legs, and found a semi-formal mock two-piece dress that looked fairly professional and was cool enough for summer before I packed everything up and headed out.Bookmark here

As I walked downstairs, I bumped into Tenmyouji and his armload of dirty laundry. “Sorry!” I said, jumping back and watching as a pair of boxer shorts fell on the floor.Bookmark here

“My fault. I should be watching where I’m—” Tenmyouji said, but he turned to me and noticed my face. “What happened?”Bookmark here

“…Long story,” I said. I let him return to his laundry as I made my way out of the building.Bookmark here

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Meanwhile, in the apartment upstairsBookmark here

Shinji Tenmyouji stared at the figures in the bank account incredulously. How could they have gone down by five hundred thousand yen in less than 24 hours? He wasn’t scheduled to be doing any payouts. He checked the account information and found that they were withdrawn from an ATM last night at 9:35, at a bank branch near the train station that served Musashino General Hospital. Aside from Shinji himself, there was only one other person that had access to a bank card—Taiga Shirogane.Bookmark here

What did he need all that money for? Shinji thought as he hit the option to call Taiga on his phone. He’d probably be in class by now, but that was fine. A few hang-up calls with no messages would get his attention.Bookmark here

Sakamoto’s appearance was also bothering him. She looked like she was in pain, and that cut on her swollen lip didn’t look like it was from a cooking accident. He sat back on his futon, lost in thought, until he sat up abruptly and turned towards a computer. He logged into an anonymous web browser and entered the login credentials for Kentaro Matsudaira’s NPGBA account. Sure enough, his email inboxes and outboxes were completely scrubbed and empty, but Shinji typed in the code to restore the website from five hours earlier and switched to the sent box. The email that Taiga had sent luring Sakamoto to the meeting spot was front and center.Bookmark here

His eyes narrowed into slits as he saved the email to the folder of blackmail material, and his phone began to vibrate. He looked down to realize that Taiga was calling him back. With hands shaking in rage, he picked it up.Bookmark here

“You’re burning up my phone there,” Taiga said, chuckling. “I don’t have much time.”Bookmark here

“Shirogane. There’s five hundred thousand yen missing from our bank account from last night. Why,” Tenmyouji said sternly.Bookmark here

“A friend of mine needed the money,” Taiga said. “He was thrown out of school a few months ago and his parents kicked him out. Girl problems, as he put it.”Bookmark here

“Really."Bookmark here

“I’m going to pay it back. I promise,” Taiga said, chuckling.Bookmark here

“Do I know this friend of yours?” Shinji asked.Bookmark here

“You might…remember a guy named Hiro Tanaka? You kind of kicked him to the curb a little while back…”Bookmark here

“I had my reasons.”Bookmark here

“What’s with you? You’re never this angry.”Bookmark here

“Sakamoto-san’s been injured. I don’t know how or why.”Bookmark here

“Oh, my. That’s awful,” Taiga said, sarcastically. “And under your watch, too…You must feel awful.”Bookmark here

Not as awful as you’re gonna feel, Shinji thought. “Put the money back into the account in 7 days. That’s an order,” he growled.Bookmark here

“All right, all right. I’ve got to get back to class now.”Bookmark here

As Taiga hung up, Shinji slammed his fist on the table. I never should have trusted him with that information, he thought, as frustrated tears sprang to his eyes. What the hell did he do to her? When Taiga had come to Shinji mentioning that Tanaka wanted revenge for his loss to Sakamoto, he had thought it just meant the release of embarrassing information—but then there was the mention of schedules and daily habits. Sakamoto got away that first time through sheer luck, and Shinji hoped that posting the blackmail flyers around the school would have dissuaded Tanaka from ever trying again. Now Taiga had contacted Hiro Tanaka behind his back, and…Shinji didn’t even want to think about it.Bookmark here

His phone vibrated again, this time with a contact marked “Unknown Number.” Shinji picked it up and swiped across the screen.Bookmark here

“Tenmyouji-kun, how are you?” said a man’s voice. “It’s been quite some time since we last talked…and I see a lot has happened.”Bookmark here

“Yes…good and bad,” Shinji said. “The good news is that I don’t think they suspect St. Germaine…but the bad news is that Sakamoto’s been hurt.”Bookmark here

“…Hurt.”Bookmark here

“I don’t know. I saw her earlier. She was limping and she had a fat lip.”Bookmark here

There was silence from the other end. “Do you have any idea who is responsible?”Bookmark here

“I do.” Shinji’s voice was cold. “And they won’t know what hit them.”Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.